IOLA LETTER and WOMEN SUFFRAGE BY JAH KENTE YOUTH THEATRE DIRECTED AND ACTED BY STUDENTS: "THE ONLY WAY TO RIGHT THE WRONG IS TO TURN THE LIGHT OF TRUTH ON THEM."
Spring and Summer 2020 Curricula: Jah Kente
International Youth Theatre: Out of School Time Artistic Director: Zakee Parker Instructor: Melvin Andrews Guest Instructors: Berka Ngong; Baba Rufus T. Stevenson; Chardelle Moore Supervisor: Professor Kelsy Collie
Who Was Ida B. Wells?
Ida B. Wells was an African American journalist, activist, abolitionist, a working mother, and feminist who led an anti-lynching crusade in the United States in the 1890s, and co-founder of NAACP. She went on to found and become integral in groups striving for African American justice.
"I think Ida B. Wells should be remembered as an African-American woman who battled both racism and sexism at a time when it was extremely dangerous to speak out… She used her gift of writing, speaking and organizing to help shed light on injustice. She was extremely brave and held steadfast to her convictions despite being criticized, ostracized and marginalized by her contemporaries.” -Michelle Duster, great-great granddaughter of Ida B. Wells.
Later in life, Ida B. Wells (first row, second from right) split her time between her family and her activism. She gave birth to four children: Charles, Herman, Ida and Alfreda. (Photo: Courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library)
Early Life, Family and Education Born a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on July 16, 1862, Ida B. Wells was the oldest daughter of James and Lizzie Wells. The Wells family, as well as the rest of the slaves of the Confederate states, were decreed free by the Union with the Emancipation Proclamation about six months after Ida's birth. Living in Mississippi as African Americans, they faced racial prejudices and were restricted by discriminatory rules and practices.
Wells' parents were active in the Republican Party during Reconstruction. Her father, James, was involved with the Freedman’s Aid Society and helped start Shaw University, a school for the newly freed slaves (now Rust College), and served on the first board of trustees.
It was at Shaw University that Wells received her early schooling. However, at the age of 16, she had to drop out when tragedy struck her family. Both of her parents and one of her siblings died in a yellow fever outbreak, leaving Wells to care for her other siblings. Ever resourceful, she convinced a nearby country school administrator that she was 18, and landed a job as a teacher. In 1882, Wells moved with her sisters to Memphis, Tennessee, to live with an aunt. Her brothers found work as carpenter apprentices. For a time, Wells continued her education at Fisk University in Nashville.
A Working Mother
Ida. B Wells, married Ferdinand Barnett in 1895, and became Wells-Barnett. She continue her activities while having a family. In 1896, the Republican Women’s State Central Committee wanted the still-nursing Wells to travel and campaign for them across Illinois.
To make the journey possible, they arranged for volunteers to take care of her firstborn everywhere she went. Wells went on to have three more children and would step back from some of her work in order to have more time for her family. But she'd demonstrated that combining marriage, children and a career wasn't impossible — and as she noted in her autobiography, which she started writing in 1928, "I honestly believe that I am the only woman in the United States who ever traveled throughout the country with a nursing baby to make political speeches."
Civil Rights Journalist and Activist: The Power of the Pen Newspaper Owner and Editor
On one fateful train ride from Memphis to Nashville, in May 1884, Wells reached a personal turning point that resulted in her activism. After having bought a first-class train ticket, she was outraged when the train crew ordered her to move to the car for African Americans. She refused on principle. As Wells was forcibly removed from the train, she bit one of the men on the hand. She sued the railroad, winning a $500 settlement in a circuit court case. The decision was later overturned by the by the Tennessee Supreme Court. This injustice led Wells to pick up a pen and write.
.In 1889, Ida B. Wells was working as a columnist and schoolteacher when she was asked to serve as the editor of Memphis's Free Speech and Headlight. However, she was determined to become a co-owner as well and ended up with a one-third stake in the paper. According to biographer Paula J. Giddings, this made Wells "the only black woman of record to be an editor in chief and part owner of a major city newspaper."
Wells excelled in her new position, even while she still continued to teach. For example, she arranged for the Free Speech to come out on pink paper, making it easier for people to recognize. And she successfully courted new subscribers; her autobiography notes that at one point during her tenure circulation climbed from 1,500 to 4,000 in less than a year.
Wells wrote about issues of race and politics in the South. A number of her articles were published in black newspapers and periodicals under the moniker "Iola." Wells eventually became an owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, and, later, of the Free Speech.
While working as a journalist and publisher, Wells also held a position as a teacher in a segregated public school in Memphis. She became a vocal critic of the condition of blacks only schools in the city. In 1891, she was fired from her job for these attacks.
Anti-Lynching Crusader and Truth-teller
A lynching in Memphis incensed Wells and led her to begin an anti-lynching campaign in 1892. Three African American men — Tom Moss, Calvin McDowell and Will Stewart — set up a grocery store. Their new business drew customers away from a white-owned store in the neighborhood, and the white store owner and his supporters clashed with the three men on a few occasions.
One night, Moss and the others guarded their store against attack and ended up shooting several of the white vandals. They were arrested and brought to jail, but they didn't have a chance to defend themselves against the charges. A lynch mob took them from their cells and murdered them.
Wells wrote newspaper articles decrying the lynching of her friend and the wrongful deaths of other African Americans. Putting her own life at risk, she spent two months traveling in the South, gathering information on other lynching incidents. One editorial seemed to push some of the city's whites over the edge. Wells wrote a fierce editorial in the Free Speech. In it, she told her fellow black citizens, "There is therefore only one thing left that we can do; save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons."
After this editorial appeared, hundreds of black people began to move away from Memphis. There were other factors — resolutions made at a public protest meeting also urged departure, and the Oklahoma Territory was eager for new settlers — but Wells' words encouraged the exodus. About 20 percent of the city's black population (approximately 6,000 people) left.
A mob stormed the office of her newspaper, destroying all of her equipment. Fortunately, Wells had been traveling to New York City at the time. She was warned that she would be killed if she ever returned to Memphis.
Even after leaving Memphis, Wells spent years of her career addressing topics on lynching. For many, including some of Well's liberal allies, it was a commonly held assumption that lynching resulted from anger about sexual attacks — but her analysis showed that less than a third of lynching involved an accusation of rape. She also noted that sexual assault "committed by white men against Negro women and girls, is never punished by mob or the law." Staying in the North, Wells wrote an in-depth report on lynching in America for the New York Age, an African American newspaper run by former slave T. Thomas Fortune.
Red Record: In 1893, Wells published A Red Record, a personal examination of lynching in America. Wells lectured abroad to drum up support for her cause among reform-minded whites. Upset by the ban on African American exhibitors at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, she penned and circulated a pamphlet entitled "The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition."
Wells’ effort was funded and supported by famed abolitionist and freed slave Frederick Douglass and lawyer and editor Ferdinand Barnett. and lawyer and editor Ferdinand Barnett. In 1898, Wells brought her anti-lynching campaign to the White House, leading a protest in Washington, D.C., and calling for President William McKinley to make reforms. Wells's work made it clear that lynching was being used to terrorize blacks Of course, some didn't want to listen to her facts — in an editorial about Wells's lectures abroad in 1893, the Washington Post noted she "studiously ignores the lynching of white men, and devotes all of her time to denunciation of the lynching of blacks."
Women's Suffrage for All: The Courage of One and Few who Believe
Wells was an active fighter for woman suffrage, particularly for Black women. Many involved in the fight for women's suffrage discriminated against African Americans, as Wells was aware; she'd criticized Susan B. Anthony herself for "expediency" in not standing against segregation.
On January 30, 1913 Wells founded the Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicagowith the help of her white colleagues Belle Squire and Virginia Brooks. The Alpha Suffrage Club had many beliefs and ideals that other suffrage groups lacked. The group was founded on the basic principle that all women, no matter their race, should receive the right to vote along with the men.
The club organized women in the city to elect candidates who would best serve the Black community. As president of the club, Wells was invited to march in the 1913 Suffrage Parade in Washington, DC along with dozens of other club members.
Its intent was to demonstrate support of universal suffrage for women. One of Wells' first actions as the President of the Alpha Suffrage Club was to travel to Washington and march in the parade along with 65 club members, black women from Illinois.
The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), which organized the event, feared offending southern white suffragists by allowing black and white women to march together. To avoid this possibility, the leader of the NAWSA instructed Wells to march at the end of the procession in a segregated section for African-American women.
Wells refused to obey as march organizers requested. Although Grace Wilbur Trout, the Chair of the Illinois delegation, warned Wells that her involvement in the march could lead to the exclusion of the Illinois group from the parade, she insisted that she would not move to the back, stating that "I shall not march at all unless I can march under the Illinois banner." Wells noted, "If the Illinois women do not take a stand now in this great democratic parade then the colored women are lost," but she seemed to agree to walk separately.
However, no one listened to her except for Belle Squire and Virginia Brooks, two of her white colleagues. Brooks and Squire ended up joining Wells-Barnett in protesting the segregation by race. The women offered to march with their friend at the back of the parade. However, in defiance, Wells she joined the spectators until the Chicago delegation marched by and then joined them in the procession.
But Wells refused, and stood on the parade sidelines until the Chicago contingent of white women passed, at which point she joined the march, stepped into the procession alongside her fellow delegates — integrating the march on her own. The rest of the Suffrage Club contingent marched at the back of the parade.
Work done by Wells and the Alpha Suffrage Club played a crucial role in the victory of woman suffrage in Illinois on June 25, 1913 with the passage of the Illinois Equal Suffrage Act.
In 1917, a group of black soldiers were court-martialed after being involved in a riot in Texas; 13 of them were hanged before they could appeal their death sentences. Wells felt these soldiers were martyrs — willing to defend their country, then killed without due process — and had buttons made to commemorate them.
This drew the attention of government agents, who came to ask Wells to stop distributing the buttons. She refused, but the interaction was added to an intelligence file about her. In 1918, Wells was selected to be a delegate to the peace conference at Versailles that followed World War I. However, she wasn't able to go — considered "a known race agitator," the U.S. government denied her a passport.
Wells established several civil rights organizations. In 1896, she formed the National Association of Colored Women. Wells is also considered a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). NAACP co-founders included W.E.B. Du Bois, Archibald Grimke, Mary Church Terrell, Mary White Ovington and Henry Moskowitz, among others.
After brutal assaults on the African American community in Springfield, Illinois, in 1908, Wells sought to take action: The following year, she attended a special conference for the organization that would later become known as the NAACP. Wells later cut ties with the organization, explaining that she felt the organization, in its infancy at the time she left, lacked action-based initiatives.
Wells died of kidney disease on March 25, 1931 in Chicago. She leaves behind a legacy of social and political activism.
Ida B. Wells is associated with the Ida B. Wells-Barnett House. It is located at 3624 S. Martin Luther King Dr. in Chicago-- it is a private residence and not open to the public. It was listed as a National Historic Landmark on May 30, 1974.